Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 28, Part 58
(December 30, 1451)
The hardest steps Frodo ever took he trod that day, up and up the path, now veering off into the brush and over stones to avoid some tumult only visible to fever-visions in the magic glass, now stumbling back onto the road again. The lens might show him the safest route through perils otherwise unseen, but it blurred the view around the edges and cut him off from observing where his feet went, so that he barked his shins again and again, and stubbed his toes more times than he could count. Besides, the distant focus at the expense of all things near increased the vertigo of his illness, so that every step felt like the one that had plummeted him over the cliff into the haunted water. Still he kept on, leading Bergil and the goats, up, down, looping round, and then up some more, till he lost all track of time and distances, and passed into a dim and thirsty gloom, forgetful of where or why.
Somewhere along the way he grew vaguely aware of his father trudging along beside him. They did not speak much at first; Frodo had too much on his hands just staying upright, though he drew comfort in not traveling alone. Papa understood: you just put one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, that’s how the story goes, just keep on doing it till your foot hits another rock, and then step over the rock, and then repeat. But oh, the aching in his bones as the fever shook his frame! “Close the book, Papa,” he gasped from blistered lips. “I don’t want to read no more.”
“Now Frodo,” his father said, just out of sight, “you know it’ll get better if you just see it through to the end.”
“I’m sleepy, Papa. Lemme go to bed.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, son. Molly sent word to keep you awake until she can get her doctorin’ things together.”
“My face hurts, Papa.”
“I’m not surprised--that was some fall you took.” Gentle fingers seemed to stroke his hair back from his brow, just like they did twelve years ago, but it was only wind. “What were you doing so high up in the apple-tree, anyway? It’s not the season for apples. And heaven knows, lad, you sure can’t fly!”
The young hobbit frowned over the question, trying to remember something, as he detoured around two wrestling spirits in his way. “One blossom couldn’t make up its mind to fall,” Frodo said at last. “He can’t have any peace until it lets go.”
“Ohhh, my poor son. You can’t help her, Frodo--she’ll have to do that by herself.”
Frodo’s battered feet hurt more with every trip and stumble. “How much farther, Papa?” His voice cracked despite all effort to sound brave. “I can’t see Mt. Doom anywhere.”
“Doom is what you make of it, Frodo. Mind your toes, lad--it gets rockier here.”
“Can I at least lower the lens, Papa? My arm gets so tired--it aches clear to the shoulder now, and down my back.”
“Just a little farther, Son. It won’t be long, now. Molly’s almost here.”
“The pink jewels turn to red, Papa--they blaze more and more like fire. I can..I can feel my hand burn!”
“Don’t drop it!” For a moment it didn’t sound like Papa’s voice at all. But then he said, “That’s just the ol’ blowfly messin’ with your mind, Son. Pay it no heed. There’s nothing evil in that lens.”
“I...I guess you’re right. It feels cool again. But Papa...I am soooo tired!”
“Just a few steps more...there’s a good lad. Mind that turn--good. You’re almost there.”
“I’m thirsty, Papa. I never been so thirsty in my life.”
“Then why don’t you go get yourself a drink? We’re here.”
Frodo dropped his arm and the lens thumped against his chest. He found twilight all around him--somehow he had managed to walk for hours past the point where he should have dropped. Blearily, he turned back to the pack-goats for a waterskin, saw Bergil there barely hanging on between them, and remembered everything. “I must have fallen asleep on my feet,” he thought. “Papa’s miles away in Hobbiton.”
To Bergil he rasped, “I’m calling a halt.” The man nodded, exhausted beyond words, and collapsed like a puppet with the strings cut. Frodo hobbled over and undid a waterskin, then stood there blinking at the goats. “Can’t let you suffer in those packs all night,” he muttered, “I owe you fellas.” So he undid the buckles and just let the packs fall off, spilling things every which way with a tinkle and a crash. He knelt down then to his friend. “Here, Bergil, raise your head...that’s it. You need water. Me too. Let’s have some water together, shall we?”
“Thanks, barkeep...” Bergil gasped. “But why’m I on the floor?”
Frodo looked at him oddly, but then the man winked at him. Frodo chuckled. “I don’t know, Bergil--your guess is as good as mine.” Bergil gulped down most of the skin in a matter of minutes, clutching at the bulging leather with the last life in him, so Frodo left him to it and fetched himself a second skin. All the rest they’d emptied on the way, but Frodo felt too parched to hold himself back as he drained the waterskin flaccid. He felt its coolness hit clear to the bottom of his belly like an explosion of refreshment, fanning out through his body to replenish him. He went back to Bergil and gathered up the empty vessel, lying limp upon the ground.
“Better?” he asked his friend.
“Uh huh.” Bergil closed his eyes and added. “I can...can die happy, now.”
“Don’t you dare talk of dying after I brought you this far!” Frodo dropped to his knees beside the man.
“Yes, Master Frodo,” Bergil husked as ironically as he could. Trying to smile, he said, “Of course...you can order me not to...to die...but I don’t think...” The smile fell away from him as his eyes grew scared. “...don’t think...you can order...Mandos...not to take me.”
Frodo tried to smile, himself, taking the ranger’s hand, though fear rose up in him. “You just tell the Vala of Death that you’re not ripe enough yet--he can come pick you later.”
“No?” Bergil plucked at his own sweat-soaked shirt, very ripe indeed, and laughed feebly before he lost consciousness. Frodo took his friend’s pulse, and it alarmed him. He dragged over a blanket and tucked it around Bergil when the man began to shiver, then sat back in the dirt beside him, with no idea what to do next.
After awhile, though, Frodo raised his head to survey where the lens had led them. He saw a surprisingly green and pleasant little hollow, the air lacy with shifting mists, softening the view of...were those ruins? A broken pillar, a crumbling sill of stone, maybe a sculpture or something lost in the mists beyond. He tottered to his feet and went over to what appeared to be some sort of long pool, made by hands. On closer inspection he found it full not of water but a hot and bubbling mud. Someone had indeed shaped the basin, though, or at least the sides, and set it ‘round with tiles marked with elvish words in dark brown letters like twigs within the glaze. Cracks marred the writing, and the sill lacked many tiles altogether. What remained spoke in a dialect unfamiliar to Frodo. Even so he knelt to puzzle out the words “healing”, “protected”, “from end to end”, and what might have been “bathe” or “swim”. He looked up but all he could see nearby was a tall, leafless stump of a tree with two great drooping boughs, its roots broken through the tiles into the mud. “Did you need healing, you poor thing?” Frodo asked, patting a root, but all he heard in reply was wood groaning in the wind. “I know I do.”
Hesitating, he held a hand over the mud. He felt a heat rising, but not too much. He touched the surface with a gingerly finger--no hotter than his fever, it seemed, maybe less. So Frodo plunged in his hand. The thick, wet warmth soothed his skin so marvelously that he sighed with delight. For a second it stung his abrasions, but that swiftly became a tingling that felt good, clean somehow. When he drew his hand out and rubbed away the mud, he found all trace of infection gone and the scratches turned to pink with healthy, healing skin. He marveled for a moment, then stripped as fast as he could go without ripping fabric, and then plunged in.
No bath ever felt so heavenly! He rubbed mud onto his face and then sort of floundered the distance from one end of the pool to the other. It tested his weary limbs to push through such density, but the mud upheld him as healing minerals fizzed all over his body, scouring the foulness out of every hurt, and to his surprise each stroke left him feeling stronger.
At last he reached the end and found the remains of a fountain higher up, still pouring forth its water, though from a crack in the sculpture’s elbow rather than from the shards of a jug she held. “Oh, water!” he cried, and dared to taste a bit. He soon found himself gulping more--the sweetest drink he'd ever tried. “To think such springs could rise in the Ephel Duath! Papa will be so surprised.” There Frodo rinsed off the hot mud in refreshing coolness, and watched it swirl around the basin till it eventually washed back into the pool.
The fountain kept the hot mud down to a bearable temperature, apparently. And where it hit the bubbling mud a steam arose, soothing to the lungs, a comfort to the skin, warming body and heart alike. Frodo felt as though he inhaled rest and soaked up nourishment through his pores. This steam, he saw, fed all the meadow’s mists, nurturing such life as could find shelter there.
Frodo sat on the fountain’s edge, his back to a pillar’s stump, just watching the water move for the longest time. He felt tired, or rather sleepy, but...recovered? Yes, completely well! Or close enough, at least he would be with a little rest to fix the cure. Idly he gazed about the pool’s perimeter; he noted the prints of horse’s hooves, and then of little boots, and finally hobbit feet.
“So Mattie did come here,” he thought. “Good--he can use all the healing he can get.” Not that the rider had touched the evil water like he and Bergil had...“Bergil!” he remembered. Frodo ran back without bothering to put on clothes, to shake the man awake. “Up to your feet again, my friend, but this time just a few steps more. I have something to show you.”
Bergil moaned fit to break a goblin’s heart, but he managed to stand anyway, too far gone to question why his friend ran around naked. Leaning precariously on the hobbit like one might use a cane, he stumbled over to the pool, where Frodo undressed him and pulled him in, applying plenty of mud to the infected cheek and scrubbing vigorously. By the time they reached about halfway, Bergil needed no more help to keep his head from going under, and he finished the rest of the way by himself. “This is amazing!” Bergil said over and over, his voice stronger every time.
“Isn’t it just?” Frodo went back for towels, suddenly aware of how cold the evening had become for people without fevers (though much warmer--deliciously so--near the pool.) They hurried to dress again in the dark. As Frodo reached for the chemise that Mattie had given him, the lens flopped against one cuff and magnified old stitch-holes where the rider must have pulled something off. Frodo studied it a moment with his enhanced night vision. “That’s the kind of stitches my sisters use to secure lace,” he thought. “Poor Mattie; he must have scavenged this chemise--it used to belong to a maiden.” Frodo wondered if Mattie sold the lace.
Before they returned to their gear, Frodo studied the ruins through his lens. Funny, how the refracted image seemed to slope upward at an angle impossible for a pool. The fever-vision had left him, but for an instant he almost thought he could see clean water rippling in the basin, and a glow of green about the tree. He lowered the lens. At his feet lay one fragment of tile, broken off by the tree-roots. On impulse he picked it up and tried to read the brown letters.
“T, L, N, Nt, L? Or would that Nt be a Dh? If it’s some form of Sindarin, maybe it’s Dh. What if it’s a language of the Moriquendi? Do they even have writing?” He brushed off dirt so that he could make out the diacriticals, but he could not quite decipher the faint marks till he put the magnifying glass to its most mundane use. “Taelanedhli? Or is that Atelanedhil? Atelanentil? Something lost?” He furrowed his brow; he ought to know what the whole word added up to--something obvious. But his brain still felt a little fried; he’d have to think it through when he’d had more time to recover. “Curious,” he said, and without thinking he slipped the shard into his pocket before walking back with Bergil.
All around them goats grazed happily on the juiciest foliage that they'd seen in awhile, superior even to that around the hot spring. Some drank deep of the fountain-water sparkling in the dusk. Some lay down and rolled in fragrant herbs. “Look at them,” Frodo said as he walked back to their scattered gear with Bergil. “As far as they’re concerned, we made this trip exclusively for their benefit.”
“And they look grateful,” Bergil replied. “But why not? They deserve it.” Then he scratched his beard and asked, “Whose turn is it to cook, anyway? Watching them graze brings back my appetite.”
“You know, I’ve lost track. For awhile you took even days and I took odd, then somewhere along the line it got switched, and I think this morning you switched it again, so anyway...I don’t know.”
“Then let us cook something together, you and I. For as tired as I feel, I am still more famished.” He shook his head, still a little confused; Frodo figured that Bergil might recover more slowly than himself. The ranger asked, “How many meals have we missed?”
“Just one. Two if you count the supper not yet eaten. Four or five if you go by hobbit-reckoning.”
“I think my stomach reckons as a ‘hobbit’ does--I feel as hungry as Peregrin Took!”
“Then let’s amend it--if I’ve left enough jars uncracked!”
Bergil had to laugh at the sight of the spilled baggage. “My, what a splendid mess you have made, my friend! A masterpiece--a monument to carelessness!” He bent to pick up scattered clothes and garden-tools and whatnot, and Frodo joined him, relieved to find all but one of the jars intact. (Too bad, though--it just had to be the pickled carrots that got shattered. He absolutely loved pickled carrots, especially with that hot Southron spice that one can find in Gondor.) Soon they had it all cleaned up, and the camp laid out, and a pot of odds and ends bubbling on a merry fire, with a ring of especially contented goats nestled all around them.
But as they buttered bread and waited for the stew, Frodo’s mind kept going back to that pool. Who made it? Who inscribed the message all around? By what power did it heal? And why did Frodo still perceive more than see the tree bathed in a faint green glow?